Former Garbage Truck Driver Nominated for Prestigious Writing Prize

Jul 29, 2011

Recently shortlisted for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, 'Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives' offers a hard look at the foibles and failings of a mélange of characters.'s Education Insider recently caught up with Brad Watson to learn more about the book and how the author balances writing with teaching at the University of Wyoming, Laramie.

By Douglas Fehlen

Brad Watson

Brad Watson is the author of three critically acclaimed books. His debut work, a short story collection titled The Last Days of the Dog-Men, earned Watson the Sue Kauffman Award for First Fiction. More recently, The Heaven of Mercury, a novel, made the shortlist for the National Book Award. Watson's latest collection, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, was selected to be a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the largest peer-juried prize in the U.S. In addition to enjoying a successful writing career, Watson teaches creative writing at the University of Wyoming, Laramie. You recently were named a finalist for the 2011 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. What does it mean to you to have been nominated for this award?

Brad Watson: It was a surprise and an affirmation of sorts from other writers, an honor granted by a great organization. I'm very honored to have been one of the finalists. You were nominated for the award for your collection titled Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives. Can you talk a little about the book?

BW: It's a collection of stories, plus one short novella, so it's hard to talk about the book as a whole - lots of different stories. This is one problem publishers have with story collections, I think: hard to market because you can't describe just one story and try to grab readers' attention with it. The title novella is about a teenage couple who elope (she's pregnant), move in together and then encounter a very strange couple who appear to be patients at the nearby mental hospital but claim to be aliens from another planet, and they try to convince the husband to let them have the baby after it's born. After that, things get strange. You teach creative writing at the University of Wyoming, Laramie. What should prospective students know about the program?

BW: Our creative writing students, undergraduate and graduate, get a lot of individual attention from faculty members. We're a small program, intend to stay that way, and are just six years old (the MFA, I mean - creative writing has been in the department for much longer for undergraduates and, formerly, a concentration in the MA), but many of our MFA graduates are already publishing in good places. We try to work with them on their writing and reading, establish a comfort level, but if they're ready to publish we help them with that, too, as much as we can. Your biography features some very interesting work experiences, including jobs in acting, journalism and sanitation. Can you describe your journey to becoming a writer and professor?

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BW: Like the couple in the title story in Aliens, I was married in high school, went to Hollywood after graduation to get into the movies but became a garbage truck driver and came home to Meridian, Mississippi, after a death in the family. There, I ran a dive bar into the ground, worked construction (I did this during senior year to support my family, too, working from noon till 5:00 or 8:00, depending on the light), began studying at the local junior college while working in a lumber company wood shop, finished college at Mississippi State doing two work study jobs (not sure how I got away with that), went to graduate school at the University of Alabama, got an MFA, was a journalist on the Gulf Coast and in Montgomery, Alabama, wrote ad copy, went back to teaching at Alabama, then worked for their Public Relations department for four years. I'd begun writing fiction again around that time, and when my first book was accepted by W.W. Norton I went back to teaching, have been doing that full-time ever since. I could list lots of other jobs along the way: gas station/outdoor beer stand attendant at 14, paperboy (I was a boy, so I put it the old way), tire changer, ditch digger, fire alarm salesman, tech director for a theater, etc. I don't want to go on anymore about it and bore anyone further. Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives is your third book. Can you talk about your previous work and how this book is different?

BW: The stories in the first collection are generally a little more formalistic, I guess - Joycean in their use of epiphany, for instance. The novel makes use of some Southern Gothic elements, but I think of it as a family saga with occasional floats into the surreal. The stories in this third collection are, I think, a little harder hitting, and I hope tighter and less self-indulgent in certain ways. You get tired of yourself, and want to remove more and more of your self from the writing the longer you go at it. Where does the inspiration for your work come from? Are the stories and novels you write strongly informed by experiences from your own life?

BW: Sometimes they are, sometimes directly but more often peripherally, just an idea or something/someone I saw do this or that, or knew that this or that happened to. But even the ones that begin with things that actually happen to you change in the course of writing them. That's the freedom (and the necessity) of making fiction from experience. Can you talk a little about your writing influences, including any favorite authors or mentors who have helped shape your style?

BW: Too many to name, really. Every time I read a great story or novel, I think, I'm changed as a writer in some way. You learn something new or you're buoyed in a way that's different or new. You are prolific in both your teaching and writing. Do you have any advice for people who are trying to write creatively while attending to a career?

BW: I wish I were more prolific. I'm a prolific writer but not such a prolific publisher of what I write. It takes me a long time to get a story or a novel right. I would say do everything you can to read good work, all the time, since you learn and it keeps your interest and ear keen; in some way, even if it's in your head or on a slip of paper, write every day - if you're able to write a certain number of words every day, formally, that's great and that's best, but if you can't manage that, do something; don't allow rejection to crush you, because every writer gets a lot of it and you may as well learn from it and move on; always try to write the best work you can, work that's better than what you think you're capable of writing.

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